BOWEN Viola Sonatas: No. 1 in c; No. 2 in F. Romance in D?. Fantasia. Phantasy in F. Romance in A. Allegro de concert. Melodies: for the G String; for the C String. Rhapsody in g. BEETHOVEN (arr. Bowen) Piano Sonata in c?, “Moonlight” • Lawrence Power (va); Simon Crawford-Phillips (pn) • HYPERION 67651 (2 CDs: 122:34)
I have to confess that I haven’t always paid my membership fees to the York Bowen fan club that appears to be generating momentum: I’ve sometimes felt that the evident fluency of his writing wasn’t matched by an equivalent felicity of invention. And it’s not just Bowen: Bridge and Ireland are two other English composers I wish weren’t so damnably polite; their music would be so much more refreshing if it got upRead more and stamped and swore and behaved badly. So I approached this assignment with some hesitation, and am pleased to report that my appreciation for the music has grown with every listen. As Lawrence Power points out, this is a young man’s man, dating in the large part from Bowen’s early twenties, in the very first years of the 20th century, and it has an ardor, a freshness to it that has gradually whittled away most of this Thomas’s doubts. The sound world is close to early Bridge and to Ireland, and you hear echoes of Elgar not far into the first movement of the First Sonata (1905), and consistently throughout the rest of the two discs—the lighter Elgar who was by now a mainstay of Britain’s salons. The heritage of English folk music is never far away, either. But even through the folksy finale of the First Sonata, there was an affinity with another composer that I couldn’t quite nail. And then on my third hearing of the Romance in D? (written for violin and piano in 1900, when Bowen was 16, and arranged for viola in 1904) it suddenly hit me: Korngold. It’s just possible that, Korngold having hit the headlines a few years beforehand, Bowen had heard some of his music; more probably, it is simply the primacy of lyricism set into a complex background that provides the similarity. The Second Sonata (1906) begins with a rising figure that reminded me of Schubert’s “Trout,” but we turn out to be headed for the rapids of Bowen’s stormy development. Somehow, though, he manages to have his cake and eat it: the light-music element is never far away, and it returns to refresh the mood whenever matters threaten to grow too dark—and always that concern for a good tune.
The odd-man-out here, Fantasia for four violas of 1907, turns out to be quite some work. It begins in that wistful frame of mind that seems to be common to multiple strings (think Metamorphosen writ small) before setting off on a jolly romp that gradually wracks up the tension to a central climax from which the music gently climbs down, pausing for philosophical reflection on the way—at which point, oddly enough, you might almost pass it off as rediscovered Debussy. The closing bars are exquisite. Hats off to Bowen’s textural inventiveness—this sounds not like four violas (or at least what we lesser mortals might expect four violas to sound like) but like any “normal” string ensemble with a full range of colors.
Lawrence Power and Simon Crawford-Phillips provide exemplary performances, as committed in the deed as Power professes himself in interview: you can tell he really cares about this music, and yet he doesn’t over-egg the pudding—he is equally happy to let the simpler pieces unfold naturally and unemphatically. Power revels in the big tunes that Bowen hands out, and he and Crawford-Phillips contrast them with a buoyant, whip-crack rhythmic alertness. The sound is natural, with the piano recorded a little more distantly than the viola, as you’d hear them in a concert. If I’ve one complaint, it is that the viola line Bowen added to the first movement of the “Moonlight” (excellent idea, since that rising figure is accompaniment par excellence) is rather too recessed, as if anticipating accusations of lèse-majesté. Excellent booklet notes from Lewis Foreman. All in all, then, this is emphatically no members-only club; the larders here are well stocked with tunes that anyone can enjoy, set into frameworks of considerable sophistication that still allow the music to smile.
Romance for Viola and Piano in D flat majorby York Bowen Performer:
Lawrence Power (Viola),
Simon Crawford-Phillips (Piano)
Period: 20th Century Written: England Length: 6 Minutes 32 Secs. Notes: Composition written: England (1900). Composition revised: England (1904).
Fantasie Quartet for 4 Violas, Op. 41by York Bowen Performer:
James Boyd (Viola),
Lawrence Power (Viola),
Scott Dickinson (Viola),
Philip Dukes (Viola)
Period: 20th Century Written: by 1910; England Length: 9 Minutes 47 Secs.